Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief (2010) is a sensational debut, a conceptually stunning post-singularity crime novel that combines compelling, smooth-flowing narrative with information-rich, highly detailed world-building. And science fictionally, it manages the neat trick of feeling both classic and cutting edge simultaneously, full of old-school sense of wonder and contemporary science fictional thinking.
Jean le Flambeur is a brilliant thief and con artist, freed from prison by the lethal Mieli and her sentient spaceship Perhonen. They journey to Mars and the city of Oubliette, a fascinating metropolis of ever-shifting architecture, where privacy reigns supreme. The citizens strictly regulate how they present to each other, shrouding themselves behind masks and utility fogs, editing and sharing memories, and carefully choosing their interactions in a bizarre form of encrypted reality. Le Flambeur and Mieli don’t exactly know how, but they’re players in a power struggle, and in the course of playing their parts – tweaking events to their own devices along the way – they start to unravel a conspiracy of world-shaking proportions. Meanwhile, they’re pursued by the ingenius Isidore Beautrelet, a post-singularity Sherlock Holmes whose pursuit leads him into the path of the same mysteries and dangers.
I went into The Quantum Thief expecting serious information density, oodles of eyeball kicks, and skiffy ideas galore. I got all that in spades. This is a work of mad genius, its pages exploding with vivid imagery, fascinating concepts, and surprises at every turn. But lest you think it’s all just colorful, frenetic chaos – in my experience, often the case in SF of this nature – it’s also surprisingly controlled chaos, and Rajaniemi has a deft touch with language that’s both wildly inventive and understatedly eloquent. I certainly was not expecting such beautiful prose; sad to say, part of me sees that as mutually exclusive to this peculiar brand of information-rich SF. But there’s real mastery at work here, every wicked cool idea informing the plot and organically springing from the world. And oh yeah, great characters too!
At the end, I set the book down rather astonished, feeling like I wasn’t quite smart enough to have read it. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand huge chunks of it. But in the end I didn’t care about that, because even when the big picture got murky, the sentence-level journey was so bloody entertaining. And every now and then, just when I needed it, a crucial plot point would snap crisply into focus and I’d be centered again, and off to the races.
Really interesting, fascinating stuff here — a remarkable book that resonates with visionary masters like Bester and Delany and Marusek, while ultimately pushing beyond them.